Person-friendly Language: Autism Terminology

autistic terminology

There are a lot of different ways to express a very common idea. Expressing such ideas in a people-friendly manner, however, can be difficult.

With the onslaught of attention autism has received over the past several years, it is more important than ever for health care professionals (as well as laypeople!) to learn amicable conversational patterns over what can be very controversial topics. Often, the best way to do this is by looking at specific terminology. Consider these examples:

“Autistic Person v. Person with Autism”

There is no unilaterally correct way to deliver this terminology. Its reception depends on the individual and how they see their situation. It is of tantamount importance to first establish which term an individual relates to in order to maximize their experience in treatment.

“High v. Low Functioning”

Though these labels appear practical because they establish a supposed spectrum, it implies that every person affected by autism is on the same scale. This is not the case. Functionality depends not only on the individual person’s circumstances, but also in terms of what they see as being a success or failure in their day-to-day lives. This results in a multivariate understanding of functioning that simply cannot be contained by this limited, but oft-used label.

“Talking Down”

Imagine being a fully-grown adult who is spoken to as if you were a child. Such is the reality for too many individuals with autism. At times, simpler language may be necessary to productively communicate, but a patronizing tone is not the avenue to get there.

“Suffers From”

Being autistic is not necessarily good or bad. It just is. To say that a person suffers from autism is to imply that they are in extreme pain or discomfort. Autism may not necessarily be a gift, but it does not have to be an affliction. Using positive language when speaking of autism is a powerful tool to redefining the way we view disabilities in our generation.

“The Norm”

What is normal is entirely a construction. Being autistic doesn’t make you abnormal; it simply means that you have a very unique concept of the world around you. No one person is “normal;” this is just a social construct people have developed so as to categorize their very complex world into oversimplified terms.

These are just a few of the many ongoing debates about terminology in autistic communities. For the sake of proactive discussion and interaction, it is important that persons define what terms/phrases they are comfortable with before engaging with and educating others.

Sara Power, Fordham University

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